In order to understand ableism we must first understand what it is to be able-bodied or disabled. Legally, a person with a disability is defined as any person with a physical or mental impairment. Disability is a very broad spectrum of a-typical bodies and minds, but we make up nearly 49 million people in the United States alone.
Ableism, much like racism or sexism is the action of discriminating against or oppressing disabled people. Ableism can be incredibly obvious and systematically oppressive, or very subtle in it’s discrimination. An example of severe and systematic oppression would be the Holocaust. Like Jewish and LGBTQ+ people, disabled people also went through a genocide during the Holocaust. A more localized example of ableism would be a restaurant that isn’t “Americans with Disabilities Act” or ADA compliant.
But how do you know if you are an ableist? Ableism is often characterized by micro-aggression and is incredibly common.
You’re likely thinking that you couldn’t possibly be, because you don’t want disabled people to die or be excluded. But how often do you stare at people who are using mobility aids? Do you wonder what’s “wrong” with people who don’t look or act like you? Do you use words such as “cripple”, “gimp” or “retard”?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be ableist.
I believe it’s not only important to acknowledge what actions and assumptions may be ableist, but also go over etiquette and other alternatives.
I became disabled at twelve years old, I have certainly experienced the role and privilege of an able body. That being said, in the past I have made the same mistakes that many of you have probably made.
My first thought about what I wish I could say to ableists, would be not to ask me what’s “wrong” with me. I know that people mean well, it’s human curiosity or the urge to help. But asking a person what about them is debilitating or disabling, is often a very long and incredibly personal story. I certainly don’t want to explain to the McDonald’s cashier why I’m in a wheelchair when I’m “so young”.
I am one disabled woman. I am speaking from previous experience, as well as what I have seen from the disabled community online. I do not in any way speak for all disabled people.
In the vein of what the cashier said, it is often remarked that I am too young or too pretty to have a disability. This simply isn’t true and is an ignorant statement. Disabled people come in all shapes, sizes, ages, genders and races. Telling me I’m too pretty to be disabled isn’t even a backhanded compliment, nevermind a compliment.
If you are interested in taking larger strides towards helping disabled people, there are many options for you.
In this political climate, health insurance in the United States and many other countries is on the line. Denying disabled people health care is truly an act of genocide, and would kill thousands of people.
As an able bodied person, do you ever wonder why you have the health care rights that you do? It is because disabled people everywhere have fought so hard for those rights. Calling or writing your local governments, voting in state and federal elections, and desiring to help and understand disabled people’s humans rights is an incredible help.
Stand behind us using your privilege to back us up, do not stand in front of or speak over us.
On that note, listening to disabled people is incredibly important! We are not lesser or unworthy of a voice, if you think that someone with a mental or physical impairment is lesser, then you are the problem. One example would be grown adults speaking in a baby voice when I am in my wheelchair. I don’t know what about my wheelchair says, “I can’t comprehend average speech.”, but it is often assumed that I am mentally impaired. Even if you knew for a fact that a person were mentally impaired, your baby voice doesn’t help them understand and is incredibly offensive.
Unfortunately ableism exists in the world all around us. As a disabled person, I very rarely go into public without experiencing some form of ableism or another. Whether it be staring, overly personal questions, buildings being inaccessible, or healthcare not being considered a human right, every day can be a struggle.
Your help is appreciated and doesn’t go unnoticed. Recently I was in a bookstore, and something you may have never noticed is that a bookstore is one of the least accessible places for a person in a wheelchair. More than half of the books on the shelves are out of reach or out of sight. When I noticed a book I wanted but couldn’t reach, I asked a stranger in the aisle if he could get it down for me and he obliged. It was a simple interaction, as if I were short and could not reach. My disability meant nothing to him and that’s how it should be.
It is often offensive when able bodied people infantilize disabled people. The worst example of this would have to be inspiration porn.
Have you ever been scrolling through Facebook when all of a sudden you see a video of an amputee running a marathon? Did you repost it with captions like “Wow! SO motivating!”, “He has overcome so much.”, or seen similar comments? I’m sure you have, it’s incredibly common. Let me tell you why this is not a compliment and should not be “inspiring”.
First, disabled people are people, just like anyone else. We aren’t zoo animals or a spectacle. Second, we aren’t automatically inspiring for doing something while being disabled. Whether that man has a prosthetic or not does not matter, he ran a marathon. If a video of an able bodied man running a marathon does not inspire you, then neither should the video of the amputee running one.
I think I can speak for every disabled person when I say that we are still people. We are human, we deserve humanity and compassion without being constantly questioned or talked down to. This hive mind of stigma must come to an end and it takes education and patience for this to be achieved as well as compassion and understanding from both parties.
Also published on Medium.